I recently finished an incredibly interesting historical series on Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader who took what was essentially a small nomadic tribe and created an empire the likes of which the world had never seen. Khan was an interesting character, with much of his life shrouded in mystery-the location of his tomb is still being sought today-and with different historical interpretations of his actions. Many historians today regard his influence as largely positive, connecting disparate peoples and cultures, and spreading ideas and technologies that accelerated human progress. That positive view would likely be shocking to many of his peers, as the number of people killed and raped by his armies numbered in excess of dozens of millions. While I’ll leave judgment about the larger historical implications of the Khan’s rule to the historians, several things struck me as relevant to IT leaders.
Like many other nomadic tribes, the Mongols were adept horsemen. Rather than fielding large armies of foot soldiers, Mongol armies were highly mobile. Genghis Khan leveraged this mobility to the hilt, both strategically and tactically. His enemies simply could not keep up with the speed with which his armies moved through their territory, and on the battlefield they were infamous for staging false retreats and drawing larger forces into an ambush.
While the Khan perfected these techniques, this was nothing particularly new for nomadic horse armies. What Genghis Khan did that was interesting was adapting and incorporating conquered nations’ best tactics. In China he adopted their siege works and garnered the ability to attack major cities, and as he entered Islamic lands he offered religious tolerance to tempt different factions to join his armies against a dogmatic ruler.
In IT, we often run the risk of becoming too deeply ingrained in one set of tactics or technologies. Speak with most IT leaders and you might hear that “We’re a Microsoft shop,” or “We’re too fully invested in Oracle to consider anything else.” While it’s too expensive and too time consuming to pursue every new technology that comes down the pike, building flexibility into your infrastructure and employees has a massive potential upside.
Getting the right people
While Genghis Khan would ruthlessly murder dissenters, something to be avoided in most IT shops, many of his best generals and field commanders came from conquered nations. As his empire grew, he sought the opinions of conquered Chinese leaders who had perfected the bureaucracy required to efficiently run a large empire, even overruling his own people when these former enemies suggested plans that would benefit an expanding territory more than traditional Mongol tactics.
In IT, we frequently get stuck focusing on degrees, certifications, and direct experience with a particular technology. Oftentimes, this deep expertise can be purchased at commodity pricing from consultants, when what we need internally are really flexible problem solvers with a demonstrated ability to learn. While we’re unlikely to be picking staff from conquered nations, we can look for experience outside traditional technical fields and recruiting channels.
Maturing as a leader
The Khan frequently consulted outside experts for his own personal development as a leader, especially later in his life. Even at the pinnacle of his success, he sought advice from trusted advisors on everything from spirituality to how to prevent his people from growing “soft” as his empire grew. Like most supposedly “natural” athletes whose innate ability is backed by tens of thousands of hours of practice and training, Genghis Khan honed his natural abilities through disciplined study.
In management circles it’s too easy to dismiss leadership as something one is either born with or else one completely lacks. This is an abject cop-out; like any other skill from programming to golf, leadership can be learned and can only be perfected through diligent development, study, and application. For reasons I’ve never quite fathomed, many IT leaders don’t hesitate to spend millions on all manner of consulting activities, but shy away from help developing their own leadership and management capabilities. If one of the world’s greatest conquerors and ruthless leaders had no problem consulting outside advisors, neither should you.
While Genghis Khan isn’t exactly a perfect role model, having spilled the blood of millions largely by hand, like any ruthless leader his strategies and tactics can provide inspiration outside the bloodshed. It’s particularly compelling that the Khan came from a largely ignored people who were virtually unknown to most of the world they eventually conquered. IT in many organizations can be similarly underestimated but, with the right leadership and focus, can provide the tools and tactics to make a company more competitive.